Andy Murray’s recent revival on clay was cut short by a loss in a turbulent Italian Open first round match against local favorite Fabio Fognini.
The 35-year-old Briton, who won a Challenger title in France last week, lost 6-4 4-6 6-4 in Rome.
Fognini, 35, showed off his superb ball-striking to win the first set, before Murray eventually won a second set that included seven service breaks.
But the Italian found his level, serving superbly, to prevail over the decider.
Murray was playing on clay in Rome for the first time since 2017, when he was the defending champion and ranked number one in the world.
Since returning from hip surgery in 2019, which he said would end his career, Murray has protected his body with limited appearances on clay.
This year he is aiming for a return to Roland Garros and is making just his second Grand Slam appearance on clay since 2017.
After starting this season’s European swing with one-sided defeats in Monte-Carlo and Madrid, the 2016 Roland Garros runner-up decided to train more by taking part in the Aix-en-Provence event at the second tier. of the ATP Tour.
The move paid off as he beat a strong field to claim the trophy and gain valuable playing time.
However, his loss to Fognini means he is unable to string together more matches in what is expected to be the Scot’s last tournament before playing in Paris.
Returning to 42nd in the standings, Murray’s serve came under heavy pressure as they fell behind early on.
Fognini, a former top-10 player now ranked 130th, demonstrated his class with confident returns on both flanks and several stunning winners.
The unpredictable Italian also showed a braver side to save three break points for a 4-2 lead and, after serving the first set, Fognini saved six more break points early in the second.
But his concentration suddenly plummeted as back-to-back double faults gave the break to Murray, who turned a 2-0 lead into a 5-1 advantage.
Fognini got the set back on serve, helped by Murray’s first double fault of the game at 5-3, only for Murray to break serve again and send the game into a decider.
One of the best ball-strikers and movers on clay, Fognini regained his intensity to win an entertaining game lasting over three hours.
What else happened in Rome?
Former British number one Kyle Edmond lost 6-1 6-3 in the first round to Frenchman Alexandre Muller.
Edmund, 28, has been playing under a protected ranking as he continues his comeback after three knee surgeries.
However, he was unable to beat 100th-placed Muller and set up a second-round meeting with the British number one. Cameron Norrie.
Edmund, a former world No. 14, hasn’t won a match on the main ATP Tour this year, succumbing to his eighth consecutive loss with the loss to Muller.
In the women’s draw, double champion Elina Svitolina was beaten by fellow Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko in just her third top game since returning after giving birth to her first child in October.
The pair were the two most vocal players when talking about Russia’s invasion of their country.
Both wore Ukrainian symbols on their kit and shared an emotional embrace after Tsurenko sealed a 6-4 6-3 win.
Elsewhere, the Spanish city of Seville has been announced as the venue for the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup finals.